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Saturday, March 3, 2012

"Shape Shifters" at Peabody Essex Museum by CFT

I recently went to the Peabody Essex Museum to see the exhibit, Shape Shifters.  This exhibit has something for the person who appreciates traditional Native American art.  It also has something for the person who is interested in contemporary, modern Native American creativity and interpretation.  But, it really speaks to the person interested in Native American artistic expression as it relates to oppression and social justice.  These works of art make a statement, and it's not about how “great” things are for Native People! I went with two friends and three of our kids and we couldn't stop talking about the art, the concepts, the way they were displayed, and what was written (or not written) on the accompanying signage.

The exhibit organized worldview, identity, and politics into four categories: to change, to know, to locate, and to voice. The work ranged in artistic expression, culture, time period, and media.  However represented, the artwork explored Native People of the past and present as we have lived, changed, and adapted to being on this continent through hundreds of generations. An artist who used stainless steel, instead of silver, to create a beautiful necklace, captured “change” in a memorable quote, saying, “Whatever I make becomes Native because I am Native.”   “Change” is also represented in the art, for example, the way swaying fringe transforms a Tlingit Chilkat blanket into a kinetic sculpture.

In the exhibit, L. Frank Tongva demonstrated “knowing” when he said, “Art cannot be separated from history/religion or our daily life.” Kevin Lee Barton said, “Digital software and Cree language are both evolving, but can work with, not against each other.” It is by “knowing” who we are as a traditional people and “changing” with the times, that we continue to retain our identity in a contemporary world.

“Location” influences art, not only in terms of materials and impact of environment on such things as theme, but also because of who was interacting with whom.  Location testifies to a long history of using various materials and adapting to the styles and desires of people from a particular time period.  In this exhibit, there is a sea lion intestine cape with high Russian collar, a Chumash basket modeled after Chinese porcelain, a modern dance set to traditional music and a traditional dance set to modern music, and there is a bronze sculpture.  Various materials, contact with art from other cultures, as well as the desires of the popular culture, have influenced Native American art.

But it is “voice” that rings loud and clear in this exhibit.  When you look at one piece, is it beads or blood that you see?  In another artwork, what was the impact of nuclear testing in New Mexico? There is an obvious critique of Native issues of abuse and dispossession. The titles themselves are marks of protest:
•  We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care (dance video)
•  After Two or Three Hundred Years, You Will Not Notice
•  Abundance of Indigenous Resources Hidden in Land
•  Who Shot the Arrow… Who Killed the Sparrow…?
•  When Coyote Leaves the Reservation (a portrait of the artist as a young coyote)
•  Stop Hiding Behind Geronimo
•  Wheel of Fortune – A Call to Action

Who says all Native American people are stoic, reserved, or proud? The comedian, James Luna, photographed himself in a mock funeral with his divorce papers, among other things, for “The Artifact Piece” and demonstrates the weird ways nonNative people have described Native People.  In fact, several pieces make this commentary – We are more than our “artifacts.” For one thing, we are funny! One of my favorite pieces has to be the artist who was asked to capture “the spiritual” in an artistic piece.  He did, it’s called, “The Sacred Power Poles” and is a painting of, well, you guessed it, power lines. One piece that I found quite disturbing was a beautiful, elongated hand made from layers of mica (circa 100 BCE – 400 CE).  Actually, I loved the piece, but felt conflicted with the description which was “severed hand taken as a war trophy.”  Why can’t it be “spiritual?”  That’s what it looks like.  It’s 2000 years old, how do you know it was related to war?  It is ironic that Native People are defined as “spiritual” as often as “warlike.”  It seems that in this piece at least, they got it wrong, but as a whole, they got the political activism right in this exhibit.